comes three times each year to the city of Bethlehem. While the Western
Church and Russian Orthodox Church both celebrate Christmas on December 25,
the Russian Church still uses the old Julian calendar which places their
celebration on January 7 according to our calendar. The Armenian Church
celebrates on January 6 by the Julian calendar, which translates as January
19 to us. To add to the confusion, our January 6 celebration of Epiphany
overlaps into the Russian Christmas.
The Church of the Nativity
was built by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century over the ruins of an
older church built by the Emperor Constantine and his mother, St. Helena.
That church had been built to replace a temple to the Greek god Adonis. All
of these structures were built over a series of caves that were considered
to be the location of Christ's birth.
The church was nearly
destroyed by invading Persians in the seventh century, however they stopped
when they came upon a mural of the Magi that depicted the Kings in Persian
There is a fourteen-pointed
silver star marking the location of the original manger. It was donated by
the Turkish Sultan after a previous star had disappeared. The floor around
it is marked in Latin, Hic De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est,
"Here of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born."
Christmas Eve services
traditionally begin at Shepherds' Field and then move on to the church.
There is room for only a few hundred people at the Mass and they are there
by invitation only. Outside in Manger Square the service is broadcast on
huge television screens to thousands of people who have joined together to
be close to this special Christmas celebration.
About two weeks before
Christmas people in Lebanon and else where in the Middle East plant seeds -
chickpeas, wheat grains, beans, lentils - in cotton wool. They water the
seeds every day and by Christmas the seeds have shoots about 6 inches in
height. People use the shoots to surround the manger in nativity scenes.
Figures are made from brown paper, as well a star is placed above the scene.
the Middle East people visit friends on Christmas morning and are offered
coffee, liqueurs and sugared almonds. Lunch at Christmas is the most
important meal of the season and the whole family gathers together for it,
usually at grandparents or the eldest sons' home. The meal consists of
chicken and rice, and Kubbeh, which is made up of crushed boiled wheat (burghul)
mixed with meat, onion, salt and paper.
Syria is in the Middle
East, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, between Lebanon and Turkey. Other
neighbors include Iraq, Jordan and Israel.
On Christmas Eve, the outer
gates of the homes of Syrian Christians are locked as a reminder of the
years of persecution when all worship had to be hidden. Carrying lighted
candles, the family prepares a bonfire in the courtyard. The youngest son
reads the Gospel story of the Nativity and the father lights the fire. All
gather around to observe the particular way that the fire spreads through
the wood as it will determine the luck of the household for the coming year.
The family sings psalms while the bonfire rages and, when it finally dies
down, they make wishes while they take turns jumping over the embers.
Early on Christmas morning,
there is a pre-dawn Mass. A bonfire in the center of the churchyard provides
light for a joyous procession where the image of the Christ Child is carried
around the church, both inside and outside the building.
children receive gifts at Epiphany from a very original source, the Smallest
Camel of the Wise Men. Legend tells that the Wise Men travelled in a caravan
with many camels on their way to Bethlehem. The smallest camel was exhausted
by the long journey but refused to give up, his desire to see the Christ
Child was so great. When the infant Jesus saw the faith and resolve of this
loving creature, he blessed it with immortality. Every year the Smallest
Camel visits the children with gifts for those who have been good. It is
thought that they learn the importance of even the most insignificant of us
from example set by the camel.
Traditions from other
nations are making inroads in Syria. In this photo of Hamidiyeh Souk in
Damascus, shoppers can find all kinds of Christmas tree decorations along
with red stockings to hang up on Christmas Eve.
Nicholas was born in Patara around A.D. 280 in Asia Minor and became bishop
of Myra, now Demre, in Turkey. (Myra is a three hour bus ride across the
mountains from Patara.)
The only definite historical evidence of his life is in the records of the
First Council of Nicaea in 325, which was responsible for creating the
Nicene Creed, a famous statement of doctrine. He was definitely in
attendance, although it's not known what role he may have played in the
meetings and deliberations.
Nicholas probably suffered
in the persecution of Christians under the emperor Diocletian, which lasted
until about 311, at which time he would have been around 31-years-old. The
new emperor, Constantine, tolerated and then encouraged and finally
established Christianity as the state religion. Nicholas died about 343.
It was not long after his
death that the legends began and his popularity began to spread.
Saint Nicholas lived his
adult life in Myra, where he was the bishop of the city. The Church of Saint
Nicholas, in Myra, was built after his death. "Noel Baba's"
remains were placed in a rock sarcophagus. Outside the church, in a lush and
beautiful park, is a modern statue of Saint Nicholas complete with beard,
bag of toys, and children. Unlike the American Santa Claus, St. Nicholas is
depicted as a tall thin man, dressed in a hooded robe.
An annual St. Nicholas
Festival is held in Myra, for three days around the saint's official Feast
Day, Dec. 6. The celebration attracts many tourists who spend their
Christmas holidays on the sunny coast of ancient Lycia.
Myra contains other
impressive ruins. A mile north of Saint Nicholasís church, Lycian tombs
are carved, stories high, into a hillside above a Roman amphitheater. They
are an impressive sight and should not be missed.
Antalya, the main town of
Turkey's Mediterranean coast, is a scenic four to five hour bus ride from
Myra. Antalya is a vibrant metropolis, not only from the tourist trade but
because it is a major Turkish port. The town's Archaeological Museum
contains several bone fragments of the former Bishop of Myra, in a red-lined
case. Only these few fragments have been preserved in Turkey, while the rest
were removed to Italy.
Other than the St. Nicholas
recognition in Myra, Christmas is not a major holiday in Turkey.
Christmas is a Christian
tradition and even though there are a lot of Jewish or Christian people who
live in Turkey, the main religion is Islam so they don't have Christmas
celebrations as part of their national traditions. Turkey's main celebration
in late December salutes the outgoing year and welcomes the new year.
For the last ten or twenty
years in Turkey, people began to use pine trees as a decoration for the New
Year celebration, however, this is receiving criticism from some religious
Champagne Corks and
For the past decade people
have gathered in city circles to greet the New Year with champagne and
There are companies that
build giant screens at the circles so people can watch what is happening at
the other cities of the world.
Iran is in the Middle East,
bordering the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, and the Caspian Sea, between
Iraq and Pakistan. Christians make up less than 1% of the population,
therefore it is not a legal holiday.
Christians in Iran, call
Christmas the "Little Feast." Easter is the "Big Feast."
The month of December, prior to Christmas, is a period of fasting during
which no meat, eggs, milk, or cheese may be consumed.
Christmas is a religious
and family celebration. Gifts are not exchanged, however, children are
usually given new clothes, just as the children in some other nations
receive new clothes at Easter time.